Reward-based motivational methods have been around for a long time. Whether patches and bars for children who learn verses or plaques and certificates for hard-working adults, we line people up and applaud them. But some Christians are uncomfortable with these traditions. Shouldn’t we serve the Lord out of love? Doesn’t the applause of men rob God of His glory and encourage pride?
Though the reward method of motivation is not without risks, it is not a method we should reject. Here’s why.
1. God uses reward motivation frequently.
Throughout the pages of Scripture, God appeals to our desire to enjoy reward and to avoid suffering. It’s often clear that He is doing so in order to motivate us to do what He desires. Jesus used this type of motivation in the Sermon on the Mount. Urging a joyful response to persecution, He said, “Great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NKJV, Matt. 5:12). Later, He warned His hearers not to serve merely in order to be seen because the result would be “no reward” from the Father (Matt. 6:1). But of humble good works He said, “your Father…will Himself reward you openly” (6:4). Jesus clearly appealed to the desire for reward as a reason to do right.
The epistles use reward motivation as well. They anticipate the crowns God will give to His faithful, obedient children (James 1:12, 1 Cor. 9:25, 1 Pet. 5:4). They also speak of reward at the judgment, where we will receive what is consistent with our works “whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). If our work endures, we “will receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:13).
If God appeals to our desire for reward so frequently and frankly, we should hesitate to reject reward motivation in ministry.
2. Desire for reward is not hostile to our love for God.
If God appeals to rewards so regularly, the desire for rewards cannot be inherently bad. The evidence suggests this desire is simply a feature of human nature, not necessarily fallen human nature. Even before the Fall, God used reward motivation when He warned Adam and Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would result in suffering (being spared from suffering is the reward).
Apparently, we have a basic form of self-love that is neither sinful nor hostile to our love for God. Scripture never condemns this kind of concern for self but rather assumes it uncritically. “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes it and cherishes it” (Eph. 5:29). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).
God intends that this kind of self-love coexist with love for Him. When God established His covenant with Israel at Sinai, He commanded them to love Him (Deut. 6:5) but also included reward motivation in the covenant—blessings for obedience and curses for unfaithfulness.
Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God. (Deut. 11:26-28)
This innocent form of self-love does often conflict with higher priorities. So Scripture calls us to subordinate self-interest, not eliminate it. Jesus provided the supreme example. He desired to avoid the cup of suffering (Matt. 2:39, 42) and “despised the shame” of the cross (Heb. 12:2). He cared about His own comfort and suffering and did not sin by doing so. But He yielded to a higher desire—the desire to do the Father’s will and to lay down His life for His sheep.
Similarly, when we use reward motivation in ministry or in our families, we’re not encouraging people to love self at the expense of loving God. Rather, we’re recognizing that as humans we automatically love self. We can leverage that love to make right choices more appealing.
3. It’s better to do right out of self-interest than to not do right at all.
The Bible is clear that God’s desire is that His creatures love Him and love their fellow man and that, compelled by that love, they refrain from sinning (Deut. 6:5, Lev.19:18, Matt. 22:37-40). But what if that love is nonexistent (in the case of the unregenerate) or weak? Given the damage sin brings on the sinner and on those around him, should he go on sinning until he develops the love (and the faith that informs it) to motivate obedience? God apparently doesn’t think so.
In the Prophets, God punishes and rebukes nations for their conduct without reference to their lack of love for Him. His judgment is aimed at prompting decent behavior from them, either way (Amos 1 and 2 are an example).
Similarly, the Proverbs recommend the rod for correcting children (e.g., 13:24, 22:15, 29:15) and fools (10:13, 26:3). Though teaching and developing understanding and love are not excluded, the purpose of the rod is to motivate right behavior independently of wisdom and love.
The Psalms also emphasize that those who do right will enjoy blessing (Psalm 5:12, 37:29, 55:22, 92:12) while “the wicked” will suffer (Psalm 7:11, 9:17, 11:6, 34:21). This emphasis on the general pattern of choices and consequences is intended to move many to behave properly despite their incomplete or nonexistent faith and love. It’s just better for everyone if as many people as possible do the right thing.
In ministry and in our families, though we are never content with loveless obedience, we do well to make right choices, broadly appealing even to those who aren’t (as yet) as wise and loving as they should be.
4. Inferior motives lead to better ones as a person matures.
To a degree, we are all immature in both conduct and motivation. Our understanding of God and our love for Him need to change and grow. But if the growth process itself requires motivation, how do we grow mature motives? Only by starting with immature ones. To some extent, love for God grows out of obedience to Him, and that love is possible only if we obey initially with motives that are less than perfect.
Let’s say a parent wants to stop a young toddler from playing with electrical outlets. He doesn’t say, “Junior, I want you to stay away from the outlets. God wants you to obey me and, out of love for Him, you must do what I say” and leave it at that. The toddler has no love for God yet and cannot be motivated by that love. Worse, if the parent insists on only the highest possible motive, the child won’t live long enough to learn to love God!
So it is in our lives as disciples. At times, our love for God is too weak to keep us out of trouble or to compel us to form the habits we need for growth. Therefore, we should read our Bibles whether we feel like doing so or not. We should go to church whether we feel like it or not and pray whether we feel like it or not. These are basic essentials for developing our “feel like it.”
Doing right out of self-interest is not enough, but it is not evil, and we will not grow into more consistent love-driven lives without the prospect of reward and suffering.
Even mature believers struggle with discouragement. Service sometimes seems fruitless and thankless. We “know” our labor is not in vain in the Lord, yet we do not “feel” it. In those times, nothing keeps us going like a word of thanks, a bit of praise from a friend or the prospect of some other reward. Even Paul found a needed boost in the opportunity for future rewards. At times, the love for Christ was not in itself enough to compel him, so he disciplined himself for “an imperishable crown” (1 Cor. 9:25-27).
5. It’s entirely proper to honor people for their achievements.
Some feel that whenever we give applause to men, we rob God of glory. But this view shows a misunderstanding of both the nature of the honor we’re giving and the nature of glory. Just as loving my children more doesn’t result in my loving God less, honoring them or others for accomplishments does not honor God less. Honor is not a pie we may cut in only so many pieces. It’s a fountain, and there’s plenty for all. God is robbed of glory when we give the quality of praise that is uniquely His to others, not when we give any kind of praise to men.
When we “glorify” someone, we are communicating a message about him. If the message is accurate, the glory is appropriate. If not, the glory is misplaced. For example, when my dog stops barking and lies down, I say “good dog!” It’s one way of “glorifying my dog,” and it’s not only okay, it’s a good idea. But if I say, “Good dog! You’re my best friend in the whole world!” I’m giving the dog glory that belongs to another. I have better friends and shouldn’t imply otherwise. Similarly, when we honor men and women for achievements we’re saying, “You have done fine work.” But we cross the line and “rob God” of glory if we communicate a message about the honorees in which we attribute qualities to them that belong only to God. This is what Nebuchadnezzar did when he glorified himself in Daniel 4. To paraphrase, “Look at this great city I built all by myself by my own brilliance and skill!” He not only robbed lots of hardworking designers and builders of their glory but also robbed God of His, because he implied he had achieved it all without any aid from God.
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is helpful here. Though His words touch on mysteries that are difficult to understand, Jesus clearly did not see His own honor as reducing the Father’s honor.
Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You…And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. (John 17:5)
The epistles also instruct us to recognize honor as something owed to some. Paul urged Roman believers to pay to all “their due,” including “honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7). He urged Timothy to consider effective elders as “worthy” of “double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). In both of these passages, the word honor translates the same Greek word, and some sort of material expression of honor is probably in view. In short, some have honor coming, and we ought to reward them with it.
God wants our devoted obedience, and in ministry we should never be content with service driven by self-interest. We must regularly challenge believers to view their work as logikos latreia, spiritual service of worship (Rom. 12:1). We should call them to be compelled by the love of Christ and to live no longer for themselves (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
At the same time, we should recognize that the desire to be rewarded and to avoid suffering is basic to being human and an important tool for growth. God doesn’t hesitate to use it. Nor should we.